Feb 5, 2012

The Ministry of John the Baptist

Luke 3:1–6

After the completion of the Old Testament, the voice of prophecy was silent for 400 years. Then one day, a man emerged from the wilderness with a divine call to repentance. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Luke to describe the ministry of John the Baptist.


We will continue our study on the Gospel According to Saint Luke, and we’re going to start a new chapter this morning, chapter 3. I’ll be reading from verse 1 through verse 6.

Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying:

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make His paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough ways smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

In this brief narrative, we read Luke’s version of John the Baptist’s appearing on the scene to fulfill his mission as the herald of the coming King. Receive this as the inspired Word of God. Trust it for your lives. Let’s pray.

Now, our Lord, we ask you to help us seek to understand the significance of these words that we have just heard from sacred writ. Be with us now in the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. For we ask it in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Luke’s Meticulous History

Last week, we looked at Jesus at age twelve, when his parents brought Him to the temple, and He astounded the doctors of the law with His knowledge. Then the Bible is silent for approximately the next eighteen years of Jesus’ life. Luke now moves some time later than Jesus’ visit to the temple, to the appearance of John the Baptist.

Luke is very careful and meticulous to give us the historical framework in which John the Baptist appeared. Notice what he says: “It was the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar.” Augustus Caesar was no longer Emperor of Rome like he was at the time of the birth of Jesus. Now, the Emperor was Tiberius.

Luke goes on to say that Pontius Pilate was the governor over the provinces of Judea. Pilate was the fifth governor named by the Roman emperors to rule over conquered Palestine. Then we are told that Herod was the tetrarch of Galilee. This is not Herod the Great. When Herod the Great was in his latter years, he put together a will and testament that would divide his kingdom to be split among his sons. The Herod mentioned in this text is Herod Antipas, who replaced his brother Archelaus. Archelaus was first appointed tetrarch over Judea and Samaria, but he was deposed by the Roman emperor for cruelty. How is that for irony? The Roman Empire had a patent on governmental cruelty. So, you can imagine how severe the cruelty of Archelaus would’ve been to be thrown out of office by the Romans at that time.

Luke continues on to mention some others. Philip restored an ancient city and named it in honor of the Caesar and himself, Caesarea Philippi. Philip was one of the noblest of the rulers of the Jews at the time. In addition, Luke references Annas and Caiaphas as being the high priests.

Israel only had one high priest at any given time, and Annas had been the high priest, but he was removed from office by the Romans. But the Jews, who had Caiaphas replace him, still gave tribute and honor to Annas, and counted him as still being at the level of high priest. So, there were two high priests at the time, Annas and Caiaphas.

Luke gives all this information to give us the timeframe in which the ministry of John the Baptist began. This is significant because the text is showing that the ministry of John and the ministry of Jesus were both solidly rooted and grounded in real history.

Destructive Syncretism

From antiquity, the people of God have always faced the dilemma of the intrusion of syncretism into their worship. Probably the most destructive thing that ever happened to the Jews of the Old Testament was when the kings and the people wanted to blend their religion with the pagan culture around them. That is what syncretism does. It borrows a little bit from the temple of Baal, a little bit from Ashtaroth, and then mixes that together with the Jewish religion. Any time syncretism takes place, something corrupt is added to the religion of God. At the same time, something vitally important is removed from the truth of God.

The church has had to deal with syncretism from the first century until today. It seems like every time there is a popular philosophical movement that comes along, some theologian will get it in his mind to try to create a synthesis between that philosophy and historical Christianity. The twentieth century, for example, saw two very important syntheses come into being, which did immeasurable damage to Christianity and the church.

Liberation Theology

One that you might be familiar with is called “liberation theology,” which was a conscious attempt to blend or synthesize biblical Christianity with the philosophy of Karl Marx. Christianity was therefore seen as really having its purpose and focal point not in the personal salvation of the soul for eternal life, but rather the establishment of a kind of what they call social justice, which is really social injustice.

In any case, they were concerned about translating the meaning of the gospel to the here and now, to social and political issues. Most important was the concept of freedom, and the way freedom comes to pass is through revolution. The whole meaning of the gospel of the New Testament became political revolution and freedom.

One New Testament scholar wrote a book claiming that whether Jesus lived is unimportant, because the meaning of Jesus is freedom. Wherever there is a struggle for freedom, that’s where God is, and that’s what Jesus means.

Existential Theology

Even more widespread than liberation theology was the influence of Rudolf Bultmann, who became the most influential New Testament scholar of the entire twentieth century. What Bultmann tried to do, as others before him had attempted as well, was to create a synthesis between New Testament Christianity and existential philosophy.

Bultmann was saying: “You can’t live in the twentieth century, in this post-scientific era, in this time of enlightenment, make use of electricity, television, computers, and modern medicine, and still believe in a world inhabited by demons, where there are religious people who die and are raised again from the dead, born of virgins, and so on. Rather, the New Testament content in that regard is mythological.”

According to Bultmann, there is a “kernel of truth” to be found in the pages of the New Testament, buried underneath and among this mythology. It is the task of the theologian to tear off the husk of all this mythology so we can get to the kernel of truth that really matters. The kernel of truth is that redemption takes place vertically rather than horizontally. That is to say, for Bultmann, salvation takes place “immediately and directly from above,” in an existential instant, in the here and now, the hic et nunc, with an existential experience of the sense of God. For him, that is what Christianity is all about. So, Bultmann’s theology rudely ripped Christianity out of any foundation in real history.

I can remember, when I was in graduate school in the Netherlands, Professor Berkouwer made this observation about Bultmann. He said, and I quote, “Theology can sink no lower.” I think he was looking at it through rose-colored glasses, because that was before the “death of God” theology and the radical feminist theology that started hosting conferences celebrating the goddess Sophia in reimagining God. That is lower than Bultmann ever descended in his life.

In any case, the issue was the relationship of Christianity to history. When I was in seminary, a word that we made sure we put on every essay exam to get some credit from the professor was the catchword Heilsgeschichte. Heilsgeschichte referenced salvation history. In other words, the Bible is not real history, but it is redemptive history or salvation history. If this is the case, then whether the Bible is accurate in the things that it reports is irrelevant. It is the message of how to have authentic human existence that matters.

Tethered to True History

The critics of existential theology defended orthodoxy, saying: “Yes, it is true that the Bible is not an ordinary, regular history book. It is redemptive history, but while it’s redemptive history, it’s also real history.” The Apostle Paul understood these tendencies even when he wrote to the Corinthians. Some were denying the historical reality of the resurrection of Jesus, and Paul said, “If Christ is not raised,” that is, if this is not historical reality, “we are of all people the most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:17–19).

The Christian faith is tethered to history. I don’t know how you feel, but I want to know this: Is it true? When I ask if the truth claims of Christianity are trustworthy, I’m asking the question: “Did Jesus really die on the cross as an atoning death? Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Did He really ascend into heaven?” If you take those elements out of Christianity, then you’ve taken away Christianity altogether and replaced it with something else.

Why don’t people just have the honesty to say, “We’ve turned our churches into monuments of unbelief, and we just don’t believe that stuff anymore,” rather than trying to reconstruct it or recast it in a way that will appeal to people today? This happens with attempts to synthesize biblical Christianity with the prevailing notions of relativism and pluralism.

You’ll hear self-proclaimed evangelical preachers stand up now and say: “Jesus isn’t the only way. He’s one way among many.” That is bowing before the idol of secular pluralism, and it’s a complete betrayal of the teaching of Jesus. But here comes Luke on the stage—Luke, who’s been heralded as the greatest historian of antiquity—he is telling us things that happened, where they happened, when they happened, and why they happened, as he now gives us the setting for the appearance of John the Baptist.

The Word in the Wilderness

Luke says that during the reign of these different people, “The Word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.” In that desolate wilderness between the hill country of Judea and the Dead Sea—that piece of real estate where nothing grows except a few scrub bushes here and there, where the desert is not covered with sand, but by pebbles, stones, and rocks, under which live scorpions and snakes—there is John the Baptist.

John the Baptist is living in a wilderness environment, surviving on locusts and wild honey. I don’t know what other problems John the Baptist may have had during that period, but I know obesity couldn’t have been one of them. Imagine a diet of locusts for breakfast, followed by a little dessert of honey, then locusts for lunch, and then you roast some more locusts on a stick over a fire and try to make s’mores out of them by dipping a little bit of honey so you can endure another day. That is what John lived on. What austerity he had because he was committed to the service of God!

The Word of the Lord arrived during John’s wilderness experience. The Word said to John: “John, now it’s time to leave the wilderness. It’s time to go to the River Jordan. I’m sending you on a mission, as it was prophesied in the Old Testament, to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. I want you to go to My people, and I want you to implement a new law among them—one they’ve never experienced up to this point. The new requirement is this: they must be baptized for the remission of their sins.”

Radical Preparatory Baptism

We really don’t understand how radical the concept of baptism was to the Jews. Prior to this time, the only baptism of any significance among the Jews was called proselyte baptism, which was a cleansing ritual that the Jews imposed upon Gentiles who wanted to convert to Judaism.

Proselyte baptism was inaugurated because, from the Jewish perspective, Gentiles were unclean. They were too dirty to be involved in the sacred rites of Judaism. So, if they wanted to convert to Judaism, they had to profess faith in the content of Judaism, be circumcised, and take a bath as a symbol of their cleansing. That requirement, however, was only for Gentiles.

Suddenly, after four hundred years of prophetic silence, out of the wilderness came a man who acted and looked every bit like the prophet Elijah in the Old Testament. He said to the Jewish people, “Come to the river, and be baptized for the remission of sins.”

This was not New Testament baptism. This was not the baptism that is the covenant sign, which Jesus instituted. This was preparatory baptism. There are many points of contact between the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus, but they’re not identical. This was given to the Jews, because God was saying through John: “Everything has changed. The kingdom of God is at hand. The Messiah is about to appear. Your salvation has come close, and you’re not ready. Before He comes, you must repent and take a bath, indicating the remission of your sins, having your sins set away.”

The remission of sins was signified in part of the Old Testament celebration of the Passover after the animal was sacrificed and its blood put on the mercy seat. The other part was when the high priest put his hands on the back of the scapegoat, symbolizing the transfer of the sin of the people to the back of the goat. Then the goat was sent into the wilderness, the outer darkness, so that the sins were carried away.

John was now talking about a remission that would not have to be repeated every year in the celebration of the Passover. Rather, this was the taking away of sins forever—as far as the east is from the west. So, John was saying, “The One coming is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. He will take your sin away, but before He comes, you need to get clean.”

In explaining this, John cited the words of the prophet Isaiah found in Isaiah 40:3, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” That one crying in the wilderness was John the Baptist. Initially, however, the reference was to the return of the Jews from captivity under Cyrus.

Prepare the Way

In the ancient world, whenever a visiting king, or monarch, or dignitary came to the country, it was customary to prepare the way, adorn the streets, roll out the red carpet, and announce the imminent arrival of the distinguished monarch with the blowing of the trumpet or shofar or whatever, saying: “Here he comes. Get the streets ready, prepare the way.”

The primary fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3 took place at the Jews’ return from exile, but the ultimate fulfillment would take place in this text, where John the Baptist would be that voice in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” It’s interesting to me that in New Testament times Christians were not called “Christians” until Antioch. Before they were called Christians, which was kind of an insulting term, they were first called “the people of the way”—the narrow way, Christ’s way, the One who is the way and the truth and the life.

So, John says, “Prepare the way,” not of the king, but the way of God. Make His paths straight. If the paths have been overgrown, and they’re winding around obstacles, clear away the obstacles, get rid of the bends and the curves, and make this way straight. As we hear in the “Messiah” from Handel: “Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill brought low, the crooked places shall be made straight and the rough ways smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

This is not a description of actual topographical changes that were supposed to take place on the roads of Palestine. This is the prophetic Word, delivered in poetic imagery, talking about what must happen to people as God comes to them. The proud and the arrogant who have exalted themselves and appear as high mountains must be brought low. Those who have been abased and those who have been oppressed must be lifted up. All the thorns and rocks and stones and obstacles that fill our sinful hearts of stone must be changed. The crooked places must be made straight and the rough places made smooth, because He’s here, and you’re not ready. Then all flesh will see the manifestation of the salvation of God.

This is the message—to prepare for the presence of Jesus.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.